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In the final days of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum campaign, the three main unionist parties promised that new powers would be devolved from Westminster Holyrood in the event of a ‘No’ vote. ‘The Vow’ committed to making the Scottish Parliament ‘the most powerful devolved assembly in the world’. Following the rejection of separation at the ballot box, Prime Minister David Cameron established the Smith Commission to determine how to fulfil the promise of the transfer of powers. The Scotland Act 2016 delivered on the recommendations, including the transfer of a range of powers over social security. 

The legislation mandates the transfer of control over 11 benefits, with the Scottish Parliament able to make changes to their value, eligibility and scope. Collectively, this amounts to around £3.5 billion of yearly social security payments to be paid to roughly 1.4 million Scots. The transfer of their delivery from the British Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to Social Security Scotland (SSS) is ongoing, and should be fully completed by 2024. 

Today, Bright Blue Scotland releases the first major report that looks into Scottish public attitudes towards social security since the post-referendum settlement: Separate support? Attitudes to social security in Scotland, addressing a major research gap. 

Drawing on public polling of the Scottish public conducted by Opinium, the report explores the broad attitudes of Scots on the purpose and effectiveness of the social security system, their views on specific reforms that have been or will be introduced by the Scottish Government and their support for a range of potential future reforms. The report also breaks down these views by social, economic and political divides.

It is important to note that the research was conducted prior to the outbreak of coronavirus; before the unprecedented expansion of the state to support the livelihoods of individuals during the pandemic. This research, therefore, acts as an indication of the baseline of public opinion pre-COVID-19. While it is impossible to know at this stage what the long term consequences of coronavirus will be for the relationship between the state and individuals, it is clear that the economic disruption means that more people are now reliant on the state for social security than at any point in living memory. 

Purpose and effectiveness of social security

The research has found that a clear majority of Scots (70%) believe there is quite a lot of real poverty in Scotland, with 62% believing that poverty has gotten worse over the past decade and almost half (47%) believing that the problem will continue to get worse over the next decade. It is unsurprising, therefore, that 64% of Scots believe further cuts to social security would be damaging and more Scots are likely to want spending to be increased rather than decreased, although there is division over how such increases should be funded. 

Devolution of social security

Devolution of social security is generally popular, with 60% of Scots overall and even 43% of ‘No’ voters wanting the Scottish Parliament to decide most or all of Scotland’s social security policy, although this is supported by only 29% of Conservative voters. Awareness among the Scottish public of the benefits that are being devolved is low, however, with a majority of Scots unable to correctly identify what has been devolved. 

There is notable support for social security principles commonly associated with centre-right: that social security should promote personal responsibility (72%); that social security should only be a safety net (59%); that social security should be conditional on strict requirements (58%); and that those who have paid income tax and NI for a greater number of years should receive greater help (64%). 

A majority of Scots also supported the principles introduced by the Scottish Government, including that social security is a public service (65%), that it is a human right (57%), and that it should be actively promoted to those who are eligible (61%).

Universal Credit

Most Scots support the presence of conditionality (71%) and sanctioning (52%) for unemployed Universal Credit claimants and some support for conditionality and sanctioning for other claimant groups, such as parents of young children (38%), the self-employed (40%), and part-time, low-income working people (37%). Labour and SNP voters tended to be divided on conditionality and sanctioning measures for different claimant groups, while Conservative voters tended to support them. 

Most Scots support the flexibility of Scottish Choices for Universal Credit in terms of frequency of payments (62%) and the ability to have their housing element paid directly to their landlord (74%). A majority (62%) would also like the claimants to have the ability to split their payment across different members of the household, which has been promised by the Scottish Government, but yet to be delivered.

Devolved benefits

There is significant support for devolved benefits for those on low income, including for fuel (79%), funeral (71%) and council tax costs (73%). There is plurality support for the expansion of grants offered to low-income parents of young children through the Best Start scheme and most Scots support introducing the Scottish Child Payment. 

Scots also support the Scottish Government’s reforms to reduce face-to-face assessments for disability benefits with 47% of Scots believing the current application process is too demanding. However, Scots are agnostic about who carries out the assessment service, with more Scots (45%) believing that it does not matter whether a public or a private company is involved.

Improving social security

Bright Blue Scotland has found majority support for the following further, alternative reforms:

  • Bright Blue Scotland’s idea of an additional income supplement for those on low incomes based on previous National Insurance contributions (59%)
  • Bright Blue Scotland’s idea of an establishment of an independent compensation scheme for benefit claimants that have been failed by the DWP, such as on timeliness of benefit payment (57%)
  • A compulsory employment support scheme for people with disabilities who are able to work (55%)
  • Government-funded incentives to employers for offering work to long-term unemployed (63%)
  • Attracting the highest level of support, allowing carers to keep more of their Carers Allowance depending on their earnings (65%)

Finally, many Scots (45%) are open to the idea of introducing a universal basic income (UBI). The idea, which has been touted on radical fringes for generations, has been discussed more widely in the context of coronavirus. Amongst the funding options proposed for UBI, however, there was a marked lack of consensus, with higher income taxes on those who earn more than £50,000 (21%) and a new tax on wealth (20%) being the most popular choices. 

The report demonstrates that the social security principles and reforms of the Scottish Government, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, were broadly in line with Scottish public attitudes. However, there is also public support for constructing the social security system based on a range of principles, including those associated with the centre-right, and for alternative reforms to the Scottish social security system. With elections for the Scottish Parliament coming up next year, this research provides a critical insight into the attitudes of the Scottish people, made all the more timely by the increased prominence of social security issues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Joseph Silke is Research and Communications Assistant at Bright Blue.